Bridget Bishop. I know nothing of it. I am innocent to a Witch. I know not what a Witch is.
Examiner: How do you know then that you are not a witch
Bridget Bishop: I do not know what you say.
Examiner: How can you know, you are no Witch, & yet not know what a Witch is?
B. I am clear: if I were any such person you should know it … I am innocent of a witch
Excerpted from The Examination of Bridget Byshop at Salem Village 19. Apr. 1692
“Samuel Shattuck testified, that in the year 1680, this Bridget Bishop, often came to his house upon such frivolous and foolish errands, that they suspected she came indeed with a purpose of mischief. Presently whereupon his eldest child, which was of as promising health and sense, as any child of its age, began to droop exceedingly; and the oftener that Bishop came to the house, the worse grew the child. As the child would be standing at the door, he would be thrown and bruised against the stones, by an invisible hand, and in like sort knock his face against the sides of the house, and bruise it after a miserable manner.”
Bridget Bishop was a controversial figure in Salem Town. A tavern owner who was fond of the color red, she had gone through three husbands when she became the first to be charged in the infamous witch hunt, beginning in 1692. Husband number two, it was alleged, was killed by Bridget’s witchcraft, though the charges were never proven. Still, combined with a somewhat craggy appearance and fiery temper, she was an ideal suspect in which the town could pin its fears.
Cry Innocent, the interactive play presented by Gordon College Institute for Public HIstory presents Bridget Bishop’s examination and lets you be the jury. Performed at the Old Town Hall in Salem, it’s the perfect way to get close to how the proceedings might have taken place over three hundred years ago, near this very spot. The examination was presided over by John Hawthorne, great-grandfather of writer Nathanial Hawthorn, who was so appalled by his ancestor that he dropped the letter e in his name.
The young girls who played such a crucial role in the investigations and trials are missing from the performance, represented only by empty chairs. Which is actually helpful, as it allows you to follow the laying down of the case against Bishop in a somewhat cool, mania-free manner.
The case against Bishop boiled down to this. In addition to bewitching the aforementioned husband, Bridget was also accused of bewitching Samuel Shattuck’s child and striking him with a spade, as well as bewitching a pig. Bridget was alleged to have been caught with poppets, the European version of a voodoo doll. Bridget was also believed to visit the dreams of several gentlemen of Salem, bringing sex into the mix. That Bridget was then sixty years old didn’t seem to be an issue, though it might be presumed that when sexual inhibitions were the rule of the day, the spectral favors of a randy sexagenarian were too much for a good Christian to refuse. That there was a sexual element to the hysteria can easily be proven by the methods of examination:
” The first three, Namely: Bishop: Nurse: procter, by dilligent search have discovered apreternathurall Excresence of flesh between the pudendum and Anus much like to Tetts & not usuall in women & much unlike to the other three that hath been searched by us & that they were in all the three women neer the same place.”
When confronted with charges of witchcraft while still in the rumor stage, tellingly, Bridget didn’t deny it.
In Cry Innocent, the evidence is presented clearly and convincingly by Gordon’s actors, who periodically swap out hats, coats and bonnets, to indicate that they are changing characters. Bridget’s character swings from righteous indignation, to sarcasm and frustration and finally to desperation when the writing on the wall becomes clear and she – and you in the audience, realize that a vote of guilty will likely result in her death by hanging.
Technically the show begins outside, on Essex street in Salem, with the reading of the day’s news by the town crier, which leads directly into the arrest of Bridget Bishop. So startling and powerful is the scene that as Bishop is led away to the Old Town Hall, part of the crowd is drawn away with her, part of Gordon’s cunning plan to fill the seats. In a town best-known in the twenty-first century of tacky displays of witchery every where you look, it’s refreshing to see that some still tackle the witchcraft issue head-on, portraying it in a realistic fashion that forces you to think past spells, potions and fortune-telling. The actors did a superb job of attracting attention with over the top performances as well as humor (“look! she’s bewitched the horseless carriage”),
The witches of Salem today make it a point to keep their magic white, which in a sense white-washes the darkness that spread over the area in the 17th century. And dark it was.
Altogether 20 people were hanged, with another pressed to death beneath stones. Five more of the more than one hundred prisoners died in jail, and a young girl who had no choice but to go to jail with her mother went mad. For these people, witchcraft, the devil and evil were real and something to guard against at all times. As the church and state were tied closely together, to run afoul of the church was to run afoul of the law as well. Afterwards, people were to eye the connection between church and state a bit more carefully, or as George Lincoln Burr, Professor of History and Librarian at Cornell University put it, “More than once it has been said, too, that the Salem witchcraft was the rock on which the theocracy shattered.”
Bridget Bishop must have found Salem to be a rock when she went before the magistrates. Presumably, as the owner of one and possibly two taverns, there had to be people who actually liked the woman. Yet at her trial, Bridget stood alone. When first accused of witchcraft, more than a decade earlier, Salem’s minister came to her rescue. This time he supported the persecutions, though he later changed his mind on that count when his wife was accused. It was well-known that Bridget was warmly thought of by the men, particularly the young men, though it must be said, a good deal of that warmth was because she let them play the scandalous game of shuffleboard. But when it came to standing up for her at the trial, no one came. It seems then, as now, amongst the masses a charge is as good as a guilty verdict. As Cotton Mathers, one of the biggest defenders of the trials at the time wrote, “There was little occasion to prove the witchcraft, this being evident and notorious to all beholders.”
The point of Cry Innocent isn’t too determine Bishop’s guilt or innocence, merely to determine if there is enough evidence to warrant a trial. The audience is invited to participate, cross-examine the witnesses and Bishop herself, and in the end, cast their votes. Emotions can run high, especially when the audience begins to realize the impossibility of Bridget’s situation.
I watched as a woman in her twenties, early thirties, cross-examined a couple of the witnesses, a look of disdain on her face. Her voice rose in pitch and volume as she got answers which she, rightly saw as absurd.
And yet in the end, she voted to send the case for trial.
The real Bridget was of course, held for trial, found guilty and became a part of history, as the first person executed for witchcraft in Salem. On June 10, 1692, Salem’s High Sheriff George Cowan brought back the news that he had hanged Bridget Bishop on Gallows Hill from the branches of a large oak tree.
Gothic Travel Rating
There is nothing overtly terrifying in Cry Innocent, though it’s no less horrifying for lack of all things macabre. I sat through two performances of the play, and while she narrowly won acquittal in the first performance, in the second, which boasted better attendance, particularly among teenagers, she was held over for trial. Now it’s often said that if it weren’t for allowing spectral evidence into the proceedings, the victims of the Salem witch hunts would have gone free. But keep in mind, the young girls who were responsible for most of the pandemonium and much of the evidence weren’t present. And yet from what I heard from the performers, as often as not, Bridget Bishop is still found guilty. If the thought that a jury of your peers could still find you guilty of witchcraft in the 21st century doesn’t scare the living shit out of you, I don’t know what will.